Thanksgiving: a Tale of Two Tables

Confession, I still sit at the kids’ table.

I mean, the “kids” are all over 21 now, two of my cousins are married, and there is an abundance of wine…but we still always break out a craft or coloring page, and all of our parents and grandparents still sit at another table in the formal dining room.

I’m also in charge of decor for both tables. To differentiate, I like to keep my table a little more fun and informal, while the “grown ups” get a more formal dining experience.

Typically, though, I like to tie both tables together with an emphasis on natural decor by bringing the outdoors in (literally). It’s nice to inspire a seasonal ambiance by focusing the decor on what is naturally beautiful at this time of year.

At the kids’ table

Last year, I created a flurry of leaves by preserving maple leaves and suspending them from the chandelier with various lengths of fishing wire.

It’s pretty easy to create this effect. Just soak any leaf in glycerine and water soon after picking, and the leaves will stay more vibrant and less crispy. A simple Google search will help with the exact amount of glycerine necessary.

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Leaves drying after their glycerine treatment in the nearby pan

I added to this rustic table setting with homemade napkin rings (ribbons hot glued to acorns collected in my yard) and little pumpkins I kept from Halloween. All of these natural elements played well with my mother’s colorful serving dish as a centerpiece and some bright placemats.

Meanwhile at the grownups’ table

I actually had a few tables to work with. On one, another little round pumpkin became a carved planter for a burgundy pansy. 1128131148b

On the buffet, there was space for homemade beeswax candles since all of the casseroles were being served from the kitchen next door. Each of these little candles were made from a mail order kit, and cored apples in serving dishes and teacups served as perfect candle sticks.

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To add hight at and keep the formal feel, a seasonal flower bouquet took center stage in a prized vase. 401720_859908748999_18812124_38841154_1935915328_n

Overall, most of the decorations were inexpensive or were found outside or among family heirlooms around the house. The best part was that the day was warm and personal. The decor at both tables helped set the stage for a wonderful dinner and memories with family.

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Hope you have a happy Thanksgiving and that your holiday is beautiful. I can’t wait to share pictures from this year. 

A Little More Please!

More sweet potatoes, more family, and more Thanksgiving is always better.

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A Timeworn and Beloved Recipe

I’m pretty sure I’m totally capable of making sweet potato caserol on my own. Of course, I don’t know for sure because my mom has always helped me.

One of my family’s top two favorite Thanksgiving dishes (tied with my dad’s cornbread dressing) is Mom’s Senator Russel’s Sweet Potato Soufflé. Ok, so in reality, any idea of who Senator Russel was has been lost to time, and from my understanding, the finished side doesn’t fit the definition of a soufflé, but oh my goodness, all cares about the name are completely forgotten as soon as the smells of roasted pecans and sweet potatoes start wafting out of the oven. The second the casserole dish is taken out of the oven, it takes a lot of will power not to dive in before anyone else knows it’s cooked.

The magnetic deliciousness of this dish is why my extended family (and now some lucky friends with the recipe) jump at the chance to bring it to any holiday gathering possible. It’s been to every work and friends’ Thanksgiving in memory, and I’m pretty sure I even brought it to a baby shower a few years ago. You can never ever have too much sweet potato soufflé! Which brings me to another point.

You also can’t seem to have enough help making these sweet potatoes either.

Each time someone offers to bring Senator Russel’s potatoes, my mom starts looking visibly anxious. I’ve come to find out this is because she’s just adding this newest offer to the list of at least five other times the dish will be made the week before Thanksgiving, and it’s implied that she will personally help make it each time. To be clear, I never ask for her help, but it always seems to arrive. Sometimes, the sweet potatoes are even pre-baking in the oven before I can personally get to Kroger to buy the ingredients. Just as arriving at dinners with a warm bowl of bright orange sweet potatoes and crusty sugared pecans has become a tradition, knowing my mom will tell me when I’ve mashed the potatoes enough or even taking the spoon from my hand to show me a “better” way to stir together the crisp topping has become completely expected.

When I first started making this dish, I found the extra help just a smidge annoying. Did my mom think I wasn’t a good cook? Why wouldn’t she just cook something else when I could handle this? I wondered. However, after a few years of this supervision, I realized even though I could make the dish by myself, I didn’t really want to. I think the rest of my family has learned the same thing, too. Every time we cook sweet potato soufflé, there’s  a Hallmark movie in the background, and at some point, my mom and I will both get tickled when pecans start flying out of the mixing bowl as someone stirs too vigorously. With so much help in the kitchen, the festivities begin before the dinner even starts, and the dish has always turned out perfect with extra eyes on the recipe.

So, my recommendation is to use this dish as an excuse to have yet another festive meal, and as a way to make memories with loved ones in the kitchen.

The Recipe:

Filling

  • 4 cups baked sweet potatoes (4 medium sweet potatoes)- lightly mashed
  • 1 cup regular, granulated white sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1/2 cup melted butter
  • 2 eggs lightly beaten

Topping

  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup flour
  • 1 cup chopped pecans
  • 1/3 cup softened margarine

Preheat oven to 350.

For the filling, add all filling ingredients to a large mixing bowl. Stir till combined. Empty this mixture into an oven safe casserole dish.

For the topping, add all topping ingredients to a smaller mixing bowl. My mother uses two butter knives to cut the margarine into the other ingredients with a crisscrossing motion. I have achieved the same results just staring with a spoon when she isn’t looking. The stirring method is personal choice. Once the topping is combined, sprinkle (don’t press) the crumbly mixture on top of the sweet potato mixture in the casserole dish.

Bake at 350 for 45 minutes. Let cool slightly, but serve while warm.

*The recipe can be mixed and added to the casserole dish and kept in the refrigerator overnight to be baked the next day.

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Before…
After!

Enjoy!

The Essence of Tuscany

Sometimes I feel like Tuscany can be bottled.

The olives in a sunny Italian grove are pressed into a bright oil to be taken anywhere in the world and poured over crusty bread. A few drops of the region’s dark, sweet balsamic vinegar on this bread is a very happy start to any meal, and opening a bottle of Chianti Classico seems like a vacation in itself. It’s almost like the sweeping vistas, patchwork farms, and sunny days of Tuscany can be can be distilled, reduced to a powerful essence.

Castello di Verrazzano

I had the privilege of visiting the centuries old Castello di Verrazzano this summer. At the castle, my group’s tour guide enthusiastically told us the estate’s history as well as the process of making delicious wine. Then we got to try some of the estate’s own bottled heritage, including a few types of wine in a range of taste and price.

When asked what the best wine in the world is, our friendly guide explained that her grandfather had always told her, “the wine with the highest price and the most awards isn’t necessarily the best wine. It doesn’t matter how much you paid for a bottle, if you’re with good company, in a beautiful place, and the wine tastes good with what you are eating, then that’s the best wine.” How sweet and true!

Looking back at our stay in Tuscany, I love to scroll through my pictures of the loggia at the Villa il Poggiale where we stayed. The idyllic villa sits at the top of a hill, surrounded by olive groves and allows panoramic views of the innumerable, picturesque farms dotted across similar hills as far as the eye can see. At the end of the deep-set front porch is one tall, open air window which seems to frame the best of the countryside for the viewing pleasure of anyone lounging outside.

Villa il Poggiale

As nerdy as it is, before my trip, I had watched “Monty Don’s Italian Gardens” on Netflix, eager to see what the world would look like in Italy. On the show, I learned that a trick in gardening is to frame a beautiful view in order to bring it into focus for the visitor, and by concentrating on one part of a vast expanse, the view outside the garden becomes something precious to be admired like artwork.

It seems to me like this framed view, like a good bottle of wine, condenses what is beautiful about the surrounding area and makes you feel warm and happy to experience it…especially when enjoying it surrounded by friends and family and good food.

Hope you have a chance to enjoy the essence of wherever you find yourself this summer, and maybe you too can take a little bottle of Tuscan sun home with you.

Swiss Sheep

I just love Swiss sheep. The mountains are cool, but when every steep hill is dotted with sheep wearing little bells, what could be better?

When I went to Zermatt a few summers ago, I had expected to spend two full days zipping around in the world’s greatest ski resort where the highest slopes that remain snowy all year round.

Instead, I spent most of my first day hanging out with sheep.

We had arrived during the hottest summer in dozens of years…seriously, we met a Swiss couple this summer who were still complaining about Summer 2017.

Summer skiing the next day…not even warm enough for coats

When my little traveling group showed up at our adorable hotel, Le Petit Charme Inn, our friendly host explained that the ski slopes were currently slush, so we should take a hike over the village to get a good view of the Matterhorn. The hike began at the edge of town and passed a few cows lazing in the grass before climbing pretty steeply through a dense forest. Olivia and I were seriously over the hike after five hundred feet that felt like approximately five miles.  We sat on A LOT of rocks while Dean (who’s basically Disney’s Tigger in human form) bounced around coaxing us to keep going.  That is until Olivia heard the twinkling of sheep bells in the distance.

 

Everywhere we went in Switzerland, every adorable sheep wore a little bell around its neck to help its shepherd keep track of his flock. The sound of a whole flock of sheep bells softly clinking in a field truly sets the soundtrack for an alpine fairytale.

The sound of bells also means there’s surely a group of cute animals just around the corner, which was definitely the case on our hike! The first tiny farm- livestock farms in Switzerland are about the size of my living room, nothing is Texas size- was just feet from the path, and we hurried to take picture of little black eared lambs next to their slate roofed barn. This was just the first group of sheep, though. We spent the rest of our hike hurrying from one little pasture to the next. Soon, without even remembering how “tired” we had been, we found ourselves above the tree line and with a spectacular view of the Matterhorn brooding over a field.

Olivia, Dean, and I spent some time (maybe the better part of an hour) taking selfies with sheep and absorbing the beautiful mountain-scape around us. We also found that, as always, you never know exactly where you’ll end up on vacation, and cute animals plus beautiful views equal extreme hiking endurance.

 

Deign Inspiration at Home

Walking around Zermatt after our hike, we were reminded of the afternoon we had spent with sheep and of the town’s inextricable relationship with the countryside around it. Everywhere we looked was wool and lambskin décor. Many of the cafes had draped sheep skins over chairs to keep customers warm as they ate outside, overlooking the (slushilly) snowcapped mountains. The use of these local wool products showcased regional heritage while creating a cozy, inviting look.

Back home, you can recreate this warm Swiss look with sheep skin throws available online or even relatively inexpensively from your local Ikea store.

You can also honor your new lamb friends by using faux lambskin.

Either way, paired with a warm wool blanket (in very Swiss bright red) your house will feel warm and inviting.

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